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Student Veterans with Disabilities in Higher Education

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According to Madaus et al. (2009), the enactment of the Post 9/11 G.I Bill provides military members who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts with educational benefits to join universities and colleges.  Most definitely, the Post 9/11 G.I Bill will prompt a considerable increase in the number of veterans attending college following completion of service. However, these veterans include those with physical and psychological disabilities encountered during their term of service in the military. In the year 2008, over 336,000 active-duty personnel and veterans, 80,000 survivors, and 100, 000 National Guardsmen and reservist used educational benefits. Based on claim benefits volume, the G.

I Bill could result in an estimated increase of 25% in the number of Unites States veteran college students linked to the military. In accordance with the American Council on Education, the veteran personnel with disability complete their military service and take advantage of the G.I Bill and colleges will be required to serve more than two million contemporary veteran students (Madaus et al., 2009, p. 15). Quite a number of higher learning institutions have not experienced this huge presence of veteran students with disabilities. Therefore, it is important to review the history of the G.I Bill, identify challenges faced by veteran students during transition to college life, and come up with practical suggestions on programs that universities and colleges may implement to effectively assist this particular group of students.

Problem Statement

The demographics of university and college student population have transformed over the years, but the veteran student group is expected to significantly increase. This will be as a result of the generous Post-9/11 GI Bill of August 1, 2009. As a matter of fact, the NASPA (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators) executive director refers to the current generation as the “age of veterans”. From the perspective of higher education, the influx of veterans returning to college and university is welcoming news; nonetheless, it is accompanied by several challenges. Most soldiers going back to college are likely to have injuries that are combat-related that affect their lives in general (Madaus et al. 2009, p. 12).

According to Church (2009), an organizational and human systems consultant has offered rehabilitation services to clients for over 20 years including veteran students, “soldiers are more probable to sustain injuries than to pass on (in the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars) as based on previous war’s ration of injuries to deaths. The reason behind this fact is because improved equipment and medical advancements, particularly protective body armor, highly contribute to the improved rate of survival” (p. 44). This implies that a number of surviving soldiers are likely to return from active duty with both physical and psychological injuries. Unfortunately, the invisible wounds affect the veteran’s cognitive and psychological abilities. In relation with Shackelford (2009), about 18.5% of veterans who return suffer intensely from depression or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 19.5% have experienced TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) during deployment. Thus, these high disability rates imply that higher education institutions can expect to serve additional students with disabilities (p.33).

College and university students with disabilities usually have lower graduation grades as compared to other students. Completion of various college coursework by persons with disabilities decreased from 31% in 1986 to 27% in 2001. This information is supported by the National Organization on Disability which stated that higher education completion for people with disabilities declined this same period (Burnett & Saragio 2009, p.56). Veteran students who sustained injuries are included in the population of students with disabilities. With higher education graduation rates decreasing among students with disabilities, it’s a warning sign for universities and colleges to focus on these students with disabilities, taking into account of veteran students who are returning to college with combat wounds. This paper aims to identify and determine the needs of veteran students who sustain combat-related injuries, and measures that can be taken by college administrators, faculty and members of staff to adequately serve and retain veteran students with disabilities so that they may persist to graduation. To appreciate better the military experiences of combat-wounded veteran students and the challenges they are faced with in college, it’s very important to understand the profile of such students, and to realize how an amendment to ADA (Americans with Disability Act ) and the GI Bill Veterans Educational Assistance Act affect their ability to access and achieve success in college.

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History of Post-9/11 GI Bill or New GI Bill

In accordance with Burnett & Saragio (2009) the GI Bill took effect on August 1, 2009; veteran students who joined college in fall 2009 were the first group to receive the new GI Bill. This bill is an extended educational benefit program from the previous GI Bill for persons who served on active duty after September 11, 2001. The VA Department pamphlet explained that the Bill’s benefits are granted based on the duration of time that veterans have actively served in the military, and covers fees and tuition (not higher than the highest in-state undergraduate tuition at a public higher learning institution), a one-time $500 payment for veterans moving from very rural places, monthly housing, and up to $1000 yearly of supplies and books (p. 55). The utmost benefit awarded depends on the overall active duty period. For instance, those veterans who served for about 36 months or a minimum of 30 consecutive days and were discharged of their duties due to service –related disabilities receive 100% of the maximum benefit. In addition, the GI Bill allows qualified persons to claim the benefits up to about 15 years from the last active duty discharge date (Madaus et al. 2009, p. 13).

In line with Church (2009), as an extra incentive to attract veterans who are returning to college and university, the VA Department established the Yellow Ribbon program. This program readily allows higher learning institutions in the U.S to voluntarily enter into an understanding/agreement with VA to finance tuition expenses that go beyond the highest rate of public in-state undergraduate tuition. In the same line of thought, the institutions can finance up to 50% of the tuition expenses above the highest in-state undergraduate tuition, while the VA will match the amount contributed.  Debatably, the GI Bill makes it possible for many OIF and OEF veterans to achieve their dream of obtaining a university/college degree. Veterans normally undergo the moving in stage, moving through stage, moving out stage, and moving in stage. The process of moving in includes acquiring new skills, discovering new approaches using initial knowledge, and understanding organizational culture. People step into the process of moving in when they join the military. New recruits need to familiarize themselves by understanding the culture of the military and their job expectations. On this note, the military culture emphasizes on obedience, teamwork, camaraderie, and preparedness (p.45).

Thousands of soldiers were deployed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraqi since 2001 thus moving to the moving through stage. However, this stage is characterized as the period of frustration, conflicting requests, proficiency, and freezing up. Unquestionably, veterans have demonstrated that they have the ability to triumph over difficult situations and easily learn new skills while in service (Church 2009, p. 46)). Even though veterans enjoy various levels of competencies, they also go through dangerous situations and frustrating moments. Often, the soldiers’ maturity level is elevated by experiences in war zones. Furthermore, long periods in military service can at times make it appear like the deployment will continue forever. Nevertheless, a time comes when soldiers are called home, thus, entering the moving out transition phase. The transformation from combat zone to civilian life can be distressing. This stage is characterized by anger, resolution, disbelief, confusion, and a sense of betrayal. It is difficult or almost impossible for people who have not been through combat experiences to really understand the lives of veterans. This leads to the next stage of moving in again which involves veterans transition from military to college. This stage is probably the hardest transition to make especially for veterans who suffer from psychological and/or physical injuries as they transition to higher learning institutions. Moreover, this phase of a veteran’s life is marked by despair and frustration as people deal with unemployment (Church 2009, p. 48)). However, the college family of veteran students, particularly the student affairs family can achieve useful ways of helping veterans blend in to campus life as flawlessly as possible.

Challenges Facing Veteran Students with Disabilities

According to Church (2009), there are three main types of trauma or injuries sustained by most veterans. These include physical wounds from blast such as amputations, orthopaedic injuries, and burns; mental health and operational stress injuries; and Traumatic Brain Injuries (p. 44). Veteran students with sensory, spinal code or amputation injuries experience classroom difficulties such as extending listening and sitting in class. The earlier college administrators realize the effects of such injuries, the more they will increase their understanding capacity of veteran students’ behaviors hence the better their ability to advocate for and support veteran students. On the other hand, psychological injuries include depression and PTSD. According to Church (2009), PTSD results when a person witnesses inhuman acts of murder or injury which consequently lead to intense horror, fear, and helplessness. Moreover, such awful experiences result to re-experienced trauma through persistent dreams, feelings, and thoughts (p. 44). Traumatic brain injuries are mainly caused by death of brain cells through blasts that consequently affect organs that are fluid-filled such as the spine and the brain although the body may not show any visible signs of injury.

In proportion with Church (2009), generally, transitions have the capability to change roles, routines, relationships, and assumptions. The more these factors are changed by transition, the more a person becomes affected either positively or negatively. Being part of the military involves assimilation and integration into unique relations with higher authorities and colleagues, structures of discipline and routines, the role of a soldier, and unique beliefs and assumption s in the purpose/cause of war. Thus, it can be expected that the transition from military life to college/civilian life will result in considerable culture shock and pose a need to redefine and adjust routines, roles, relationships, and assumptions. Nonetheless, for most veterans especially those with disabilities, this transition process of military-college life proved to be quite challenging. On the other hand, factors that posed transition challenges consist of emotional adjustment, restructuring support systems, finding resources, environmental adjustments, and redefining identity (p. 45).

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Many veteran students with disabilities need college preparation programs and therefore may not enrol in college immediately. Often, such students have to take care of certain combat health-related matters before they can move to the next phase of life, as was Jorge Reyes, Jr’s case. After Jorge was discharged from active duty in Iraq and undergoing a reconstructive knee surgery for injuries he sustained in combat, he immediately enrolled in a nearby community college in Los Angeles but he performed poorly in school. As a matter of fact, Jorge related poorly with other students who were obviously younger than him and knew nothing about computers. Adhering to a friend’s suggestion, Jorge quickly enrolled in the VUB (Veterans Upward Bound) program, and shortly, he was excelling in his classes at Glendale Community College. Just like Reyes, the time veteran students with disabilities spent in active-duty combined with the time required to attend to their wellbeing, delay their college entry, making them older as compared to students of the traditional-age. In fact, their long absenteeism from school greatly affects their academic readiness (Grossman 2009, p. 6).

On the other hand, veteran students with disabilities need transitional help. Along with Grossman (2009), the military offers all the support that veterans may need while in service but once they leave; they have to survive on their own. These transitional needs for veteran students with disabilities may range from assistance with claiming education benefits, academic advice, to receiving credit for their training in the military. Nevertheless, veteran students need emotional support considering that experiences in the combat zone differ much from the normal daily life encounters.  Upon returning home, most veterans find it difficult to relate easily and properly to non-veterans. Therefore, veteran students seriously need the emotional support of one another. Actually, they need somewhere where they can interact with other veteran students, a place they can feel at ease, and where that can be supported in their social and academic lives (p. 7).

Lastly, veteran students need a supportive climate since non-veteran students might be insensitive at times to the feelings of veteran students. Moreover, members of the faculty can also add distress to veteran students with disabilities via their insensitivity. For example a case where a professor keeps on insisting that a veteran student should share his/her insight on military experience even when then student wants to put the matter behind. Indeed, there is a great need to train staff, faculty, and the entire student population on the ways to make college more inclusive of veteran students either with or without disabilities (Grossman 2009, p. 8). In addition, veteran students with disabilities are most likely to face stigma from non-veteran students without disability. This may arise following the non-disabled students lack of knowledge and understanding regarding veteran disabilities. For instance, a veteran student with disability may experience mental disorders which may affect their relations with other students who are mentally fit (Branker 2009, p 59). Moreover, as a result of psychological effects that may be caused by the traumatising incidents witnessed by veteran students, they may be unable to relate appropriately with the faculty and other students within the college. Thus, most students without disabilities might choose not to socialize or interact with veteran students with disabilities for the fear of being harmed.

As Ruh et al. (2009) suggested, veteran students with disabilities also experience serious stigma from the faulty, staff and students who think that veterans are people without emotions due to the kind of work they are involved with. Subsequently, this might leave the veteran students with disabilities feeling unappreciated hence resulting to further psychological problems. As a matter of fact, veteran students with disabilities need to transition smoothly into college life and community by feeling accepted by members of staff, faculty, and other students. This will highly help these students because they will tend to feel less marginalized and more appreciated. Undoubtedly, veteran students with disabilities once held an important role in the country’s military, serving military leaders and protecting the civilians (p. 72). Actually, they were heroes while in the military but upon joining college, they are generally looked upon as grown-up learners with needs that are disability related. Just like Rul et al.  (2009), argued, mattering is a motive and it highly determines behavior, therefore, colleges must ensure that their practices, policies, and programs are helping veteran students with disabilities feel that they too matter (p. 68).

Current Practices for Support Programs

In 2009, the Postsecondary Education and Disability Journal together with the AHEAD (Association on Higher Education and Disability) published special articles specific to veteran students with disabilities in higher education. Based on these articles, current programs, and recommendations for support programs for veteran students with disabilities include re-thinking delivery approaches of disability service, providing transitional help, offering emotional support, creating a supportive climate, providing holistic education, and offering employment assistance (Grossman 2009, p. 9).

Traditionally, services related with disability in higher education institutions required the affected students to prove that their academic functioning was highly limited by their disabilities through documentation. Nevertheless, with extended coverage offered following the passage of ADAAA, disability-related services now bear the responsibility of ensuring that students who are disabled get academic accommodations whether impairment actually limits a key life activity or not (Grossman 2009, p. 9).  In accordance with Burnett & Segoria (2009), ADAAA has also ensured that disability services keep a good working relationship with the vocational rehabilitation counsellor and the college veteran office so that both parties can work harmoniously to ensure veteran students with disabilities are served adequately (p. 53). Moreover, Shackelford (2009) suggested that it is important for disability services to keep side by side issues on the Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission websites, and clearly apply the regulations of ADAAA. In addition, Shackelford recommended disability services to share updates on veteran matters with administrators, faculty, and staff so as to create effective collaboration (p. 36).

The Office of Civil Right (OCR) warned that many veteran students acquire disabilities as adults and are therefore may be unfamiliar with certain traditional accommodation means used by other students who are disabled. More to this point, the Wounded Warriors Initiative by OCR was established to help disability services with taking on creative approaches to serve veteran students with disabilities. To counter the stigma associated with disabilities, Burnett & Segoria (2009) suggested that building trustworthy relationships with disabled veteran students like explaining the procedures of academic accommodation, providing support, encouraging open conversations by using peer support, and assuring confidentiality would be necessary (p. 54).

Presently, there are veteran disability programs that provide emotional support to veteran students with disabilities. As such, veteran students with disabilities feel at ease relating to individuals who have gone through the same experiences. Quite a number of veteran centers have been established to enable veteran students with disabilities to seek support and offer assistance to one another. Such resources providing emotional support to veteran students work better when veteran students are involved in their design and support. For instance, the veteran center at the University of Arizona was in fact initiated by Dan Standage, a visually impaired veteran student. In relation with Madaus et al. (2009), offering peer counselling via work study programs and forming student groups are alternative ways that veteran students can offer emotional support to one another (p. 10).

In line with Church (2009), the Student Veterans of America offers assistance to institutions interested in creating student groups and also provides finances to colleges that hire veteran students who offer the necessary counselling services to their colleagues.

Recommendations for Universities

Universities and colleges should create a supportive climate so as to help veteran students with disabilities in achieving their higher education academic goals. However, the university faculty members should desire to recognize the status of veteran students and seek to know them intensely as students. In order to create a university that is veteran-friendly, it is essential to educate staff, management, and the general student population regarding veteran student’s issues. This program should be based on the notion that staff and faculty must be properly-informed to facilitate a college experience that is successful for veterans of today. Training may be provided through in-service department training, lecture discussion series through cable TV and websites. As a result, faculty and staff will be better informed in relation with the veteran students’ needs. For instance, they will understand why veteran students with PTSD need certain seating positions and spots in the classroom (Burnett & Segoria, 2009, p. 55).

Additionally, universities can provide holistic education to veteran students with disabilities so as to enable them to have an easy time around campus. In addition to the many difficulties that veteran students with disabilities encounter, they also face challenges while getting around campus, understanding course curriculum, and getting to classes due to acquired learning and/or physical disabilities. However, the universities could also promote the idea of universal access to environment and resources for persons with disabilities. According to Shackelford (2009), when the environment and resources are friendly to veterans with disability, they become accessible to the non-disabled as well. Moreover, the adoption of universal design by universities would ensure that all veteran students benefit from pedagogy and the integration of technology regardless of ability. For example, coursework design ought to include service learning and student engagement, intentional planning, and technological innovation.  Certainly, initiatives aimed at benefiting veteran students with disabilities could as well profit other learners (p. 45). However, the adopted universal design must state the kind of experience and activities that are intended for veteran students with disabilities. Moreover, it should advocate for responding to the needs of veteran students in higher education classrooms.

Furthermore, the universal design is a human-centred design, a way that solves problems by constraints/conditions of the student. When good learning and teaching practices are merged with the principles of universal design, the college would be able to accommodate diverse learning styles, talents, and disabilities. Additionally, it would be in a position to accommodate a broad range of individual preferences, communicate easily regardless of the veteran student’s sensory abilities, and allow for maximum participation by students regardless of posture, mobility, body size, or psychological motility (Ruh, et al., 2009, p. 69).

Besides, universities and colleges should offer employment assistance to veteran students with disabilities. The American Community Survey of 2006 indicated that over 700,000 veterans with disabilities lack employment in any given month and the few who are employed are radically under-employed (Burnett & Segoria 2009, p. 56).  In order to counter this fact, disability services should work together with career officers and take on successful corporate initiatives to assist veteran students with disabilities transition to employment. These practices may involve teaching skills that handle work-related problems, setting up awareness workshops for disability to educate people on issues that are disability-related, and instructing veteran students with disabilities on latest assistive technology that sustains their conditions.

According to Shackelford (2009), the ACE (1949) article stated that a students’ development is affected by attitudes, experiences, background, and abilities that they bring along to college, their reactions toward past experiences, and their classroom experiences (p. 21). Besides, nurturing veteran students with disabilities through physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and social support helps in achieving their higher education goals. This holistic approach is supported by the article Learning reconsidered (Shackelford 2009, p. 22). In the same line of thought, it would be important and helpful, particularly for residential institutions, to a sign a unique residential hall with all the necessary facilities to veteran students with disabilities. This will ensure that these students feel more comfortable and are able to access facilities that are essential for persons with disabilities hence promoting better academic performance. However, staff and faculty training will help in increasing sensitivity and providing timely assistance to veteran students with disabilities when required. In accordance with Branker (2009), professionals of higher education should ensure that veteran students with disability have a counsellor or academic advisor who can guide them in the processes of registration and accommodation (p. 60).

On the other hand, higher education institutions should conduct regular assessments and keep accurate data regarding veteran students with disability programs. In absence of accurate data in sectors such as engagement, enrolment, and persistence, it would be very hard for higher education institutions to meet the needs of veteran students with disabilities. Besides keeping accurate data and information, each and every institution has the responsibility to carry out regular assessments on veteran’s students with disability and associated services and programs. Institutions of higher education should be committed to serving their veteran students with disabilities and thus ought to make sure that assessment of these students’ performance and programs and services that are veteran-related are conducted on an ongoing basis (Branker 2009, p. 63).

Veteran students are becoming an increasingly diverse group of students, and though these students form a minority population in colleges and universities, their need widely differ from those of other minority groups in various ways. More and more higher education institutions are recognizing the importance of offering veteran students with disabilities with customized services and programs to recruit, retain and ensure graduation of these students. Nevertheless, some of these institutions have no idea on how to establish such services and programs, while others are highly overwhelmed by the huge amount of recommendations and information for implementation. Thus, it is important for higher education institutions to create their own standards as the develop services, resources, and programs for their veteran students with disabilities.

Veteran students with disabilities are likely to face certain academic and social imbalances in higher education and deal properly with them. Actually, this generation will soon start to emerge as leaders in all productive sectors of the society. The combination of their wisdom and discipline gathered from their injuries and sacrifices while in military service, and the commitment of higher education to design a balanced and complete education for them, will propel this deserving group of students into playing a key role in enhancing their quality of life as well as that of the nation and the entire world.

As returning veterans with disabilities enrol in colleges and universities in large numbers mainly as a result of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, college personnel need to become conscious of the fact that many have really suffered combat-related wounds both psychological and physical. By understanding the effects of such wounds and the needs of veteran students, and making use of the best practices for veteran support programs and services that are sustained by assessments, accurate data, and grants, as well as professional and coherent standards, college personnel can become more effective instruments in assisting veteran students succeed and excel in college.

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